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Some of the most exciting thinking and doing in Canada is taking place at the country's colleges and universities, where young people of different backgrounds, interests and politics come together to debate and learn about our world. Campus Notes examines issues confronting higher education through our students, teachers, workers and graduates.

Sexual health for youth: Creating consent

| February 15, 2011

I was told in one of the few sex education classes that I had in high school that I should negotiate sex "when I'm vertical, not when I'm horizontal." For those of you who are unsure of what this little tidbit of advice is getting at, it means that sexual boundaries are best defined in thoughtful, reasoned conversation outside of a sexual context. Fair enough.

But then I was told that "when I'm horizontal," my hormones would go crazy and I would be unable to discern if I was comfortable with what was happening. The combined force of mine and my partner's hyper-active hormones might in fact lead me to do things I'm not comfortable with at all.

This is a gross misunderstanding of consent. While I recognize that it is certainly possible to regret a sexual encounter after the fact, I don't buy into the idea that an unplanned sexual encounter leads to a de facto violation of personal boundaries. My 'sex educator' at the time seemed to neglect the idea that communication is a necessary part of sex, and instead of empowering us with tools to express our needs and boundaries, she muddied the waters of consent. This turned sex into something to fear and be wary of, and obscured the boundaries between yes and no, consent and sexual assault, rape and regret,

When considering the lack of information that youth receive about consent, I'm forced to consider the other places in the lives of many youth in which consent is sorely absent. For some reason that eludes me, youth are often mistrusted by the authority figures in their lives to make very personal decisions about their bodies, their futures, choice of activity and education.

In place of a consensual, supported exchange based on trust and mutual respect, adults attempt to manipulate youth in many ways, "for their own good." Many reasons are given to justify this manipulation, from the "hormones make you utterly irrational" theorem to the "inexperience invalidates choice" idea, but all are an insult to the basic intelligence and capacity for judgment of youth. And of course what is never mentioned is that "for your own good," manipulation is a prime example of non-consent.

Perhaps it is for this reason that consent is such a difficult issue for mainstream sex education. With consent comes power -- and many are afraid of the power expressed by youth in taking charge of their sexualities, and on a larger scale, taking charge of their lives. I think we are given such obscured and foreboding messages about sex and consent because a depressing majority of adults are unwilling to trust youth in making the decisions that are most personal and vital to us.

With regards to sexual assault, the best advice they have to offer is "make sure it doesn't happen to you." Right. Maybe we have it all backwards. I see a sexual health discourse that is focused around avoidance -- of pregnancy, STIs, and apparently, sexual assault. And I think this is unfortunate, because it leaves so much out of the picture.

What I think is really beautiful about a consent-based discourse is that it focuses primarily on the needs of the individual. It challenges us to be flexible in our service delivery approach because we realize that no two people have the same needs, and that not everyone has the same concerns, and it leaves room for a lot of talk about communication, because that's almost entirely what it's all about. And obviously this includes talking about contraception and STIs, but realizing that they're only part of the picture. And when we talk about sexual assault? Well, no bullshit. When we stop obscuring the boundaries of consent in our sex education, then we're really in a place to fight it. We can reframe that whole discussion.

Peer-to-peer sex education is at the forefront of changing this discourse, subverting the power-over dynamic of mainstream sex education so elegantly that I know it must be a good place to start. In my work with SHAG (Sexual Health Youth Advisory Group), I've witnessed the profound difference that peer-to-peer education can bring. As youth ourselves, we reject the oppressive view of youth that seeks to rob us of our personal power, knowing firsthand that it is false. This claiming of power is the fundamental basis for a shift from avoidance-based to consent-based education.

We teach youth that their desires are something to be celebrated, to work with, not against. We assert that there is no need to fear sexuality, and that knowledge of communication, negotiation and how to practice safer sex really is power. We've had some really wonderful, intelligent discussions in our workshops and I think that youth really appreciate talking about these issues with their peers.

I've seen how a lot of the defensiveness that many youth adopt with regards to talking about sex is challenged when they realize that they're talking with people they can relate to, who won't judge them for their ideas or their choices but rather who are willing to explore those ideas and choices with them. This is what peer education is, and what it can be.

Consent is active, consent is informed and above all, consent is power. We can create a consent-based discourse in youth sexual education by trusting youth in our decisions, giving us accurate information, teaching us good communication skills and training us as peer educators.

When we respect youth in our power to choose, we leave no room for obscured and condescending views of youth sexual activity that suggests we are operating in some kind of hormone-driven, consentless hinterland. Indeed, by removing the sex negativity surrounding youth, we not only increase our capacity to enjoy our sexual lives, but we contribute to the removal of age-based oppression as a whole.

Therefore, I challenge everyone to make the most fundamental contribution to youth sexual health that I know of: trust youth. Trust that we will make many choices and learn many things -- trust that we will make mistakes and correct them. Support us, but don't try to control us. And if you have any advice, let it first be this: consent is sexy.

Alanna Eberlee is the leader of SHAG, the Sexual Health Youth Advisory Group out of the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa. SHAG presents workshops to youth about sexual health and sex positivity, and trains adult service providers on creating youth-friendly spaces. This is an excerpt from her presentation during the panel discussion Consent, Dissent, Resist during the University of Ottawa and Carleton University's Consent is Sexy Week.



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